History in the making: Strikeforce wins the Fedor Emelianenko lottery

Photo by Esther Lin for Showtime

For much of its existence, Strikeforce was widely-considered the number two promotion in all of combat sports. Here's just one of the many reasons why.

On January 12, 2013, Strikeforce will broadcast its final mixed martial arts (MMA) event with "Marquardt vs. Saffeidine," which emanates live via the Showtime network from the Chesapeake Energy Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

The promotion, once considered a major player in combat sports and arguably the number two MMA organization in the world, will limp across the finish line with a tattered fight card -- originally titled "Champions" -- but now cobbled together with whatever spare parts were still operational (and within easy reach).

Injuries, in addition to greener pastures under the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) banner, saw to that.

Long before Strikeforce was absorbed by its Las Vegas rivals, the fight game's little engine that could, did, by delivering consistently entertaining telecasts and cementing its place in the annals of cagefighting history by doing the one thing the ZUFFA machine never could.

Sign Fedor Emelianenko.

At the time, "The Last Emperor" was 30-1 with one no contest and considered the best heavyweight fighter in all of MMA, as well as one of the finest pound-for-pound fighters of his era. Undersized for a competitor plying his trade in the land of giants, the soft-spoken Russian was also a multi-time World Combat Sambo Champion.

And he was coming off back-to-back drubbings of two former UFC heavyweight titleholders.

When Affliction MMA collapsed under the weight of its own incompetence, Emelianenko was once again unemployed, the second time in the span of two years following ZUFFA's surprise buyout of PRIDE FC.

It seemed a big-money showdown against Brock Lesnar, who had recently usurped the UFC's 265-pound throne from Randy Couture in the latter part of 2008, was a foregone conclusion. After all, any company with the financial means to purchase its competition could surely afford a man whose wardrobe consisted of three ugly sweaters and a pair of stonewashed jeans.

But as UFC President Dana White will attest, it's true, money really can't buy everything.

White and Co. essentially handed Emelianenko and his comrades -- including M-1 Global head cheese Vadim Finkelchtein -- a blank check, which some insiders suggest was as high as five million dollars per fight. Those "crazy Russians" responded by laughing at their American suitors.

Then went and signed with Strikeforce.

The deal allowed M-1 to co-promote its events on Showtime. It was the straw the broke the camel's back during UFC negotiations, but aside from giving San Jose CEO Scott Coker the top talent in the industry, it also loosened White's stranglehold on divisional rankings.

And to be frank, without Emelianenko, the purchase of PRIDE had come with an asterisk.

Other notable signings had stumbled out of the gate or faltered in later fights. Mauricio Rua and Quinton Jackson were beaten by "Ultimate Fighter" champion Forrest Griffin, while Mirko Filipovic was nearly killed by a Gabriel Gonzaga head kick.

In addition, Wanderlei Silva started 1-3 inside the Octagon and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira was stopped by Frank Mir.

None of that would matter, however, if Emelianenko could headline a pay-per-view (PPV) opposite Lesnar, except he couldn't, because he was en route to the Hexagon to face undefeated up-and-comer Brett Rogers in late 2009. "The Grim" proved to be a tough nut to crack, but was ultimately finished off in the second round.

White could only watch in disgust.

Some fans argue that signing Dan Henderson was just as important. While "Hendo" was already a proven commodity under the ZUFFA umbrella, the former PRIDE kingpin was 0-2 in championship title fights and widely considered UFC refuse, failing to come to terms on his contract extension.

His debut loss to Jake Shields did little to change that perception.

In the end, Emelianenko would shrivel up and blow away in the wind, much like Strikeforce will in less than two weeks. Following his technical knockout win over Rogers, the Stary Oskol native would lose three straight. Fabricio Werdum submitted him in a shocking 2010 upset before the doctor saved him from Antonio Silva a year later.

His final fight on Showtime ended in unconsciousness courtesy of the heavy-handed Henderson.

White would get the last laugh, literally, as Emelianenko returned to the European circuit for a trio of wins prior to hanging up the gloves for good. But even in defeat, "The Last Emperor" served his purpose in keeping Strikeforce at the forefront of every fight fans' conversation for the better part of two-and-a-half years.

Like his employer, gone but not forgotten.

For more on the upcoming Strikeforce: "Marquardt vs. Saffeidine" event click here. For a career retrospective on Emelianenko click here.

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